May 25, 2009

Dick Dowling: How an Irish Saloon Owner Saved Texas from the Yankees


by Kathleen Y'Barbo

I love a good historical, and any story with an unlikely hero is bound to find its way onto my keeper shelf. When I discovered Gone With the Wind, I found both, as well as a love for Civil War era tales. Imagine my surprise when I found out one of the most surprising tales of the era took place almost within walking distance of where I was born in Jefferson County, Texas.

Picture it: Five thousand Union sailors in a flotilla of seventeen vessels against 44 Confederate artillerymen at the command of an Irish saloon owner. Sounds like the making of a sound defeat or a Hollywood action movie, doesn’t it?

In truth, it is the story of a band of soldiers called the Davis Guards, or Company F of the First Texas Heavy Artillery Regiment stationed at tiny Fort Griffin on the mouth of the Sabine River. Their stunning victory is one that Confederate President Jefferson Davis called “one of the most significant military victories in world history.”

Richard “Dick” Dowling started life in County Galway, Ireland. After immigrating to New Orleans then losing his family to yellow fever, Dowling settled in Houston in the mid-1850s, where he established a chain of saloons. The most successful of these, the Bank of Bacchus, was situated on Courthouse Square in downtown Houston and was, according to several sources, the first business in the city to boast gas lighting.

At the outset of the war, Dowling enlisted and eventually found himself assigned to the remote outpost of Fort Griffin (near the city of Sabine Pass, Texas). To pass the time – which moved quite slowly in the mosquito-ridden lowlands - Dowling drilled his men on artillery exercises. These lazy-day activities came in handy on September 8, 1863 when a flotilla of seventeen Union vessels appeared on the horizon. While the four-dozen men scrambled to their well-rehearsed positions, the brown waters where the Sabine River poured into the Gulf of Mexico filled with enemy ships. The first two crafts were quickly disabled by the Davis Guard sharpshooters, blocking the channel and effectively keeping the other fifteen ships out of the river.

At the end of the battle, 350 prisoners had been taken and the enemy had retreated leaving significant amount of supplies, weapons and ammunition behind. Lt. Dowling and his men were heroes, hailed by President Davis and commemorated with medals melted down from Mexican silver.

Interesting fact: two streets in downtown Houston are named for Dowling. The first is obviously Dowling Street. The second is Tuam, named for the city of his birth. And ironically, the Yankees couldn’t best him but the yellow fever that took his family back in New Orleans did. Dowling died in 1867 of the disease, just a few scant years after his stunning victory. Not the ending I would have written, but still quite a story!

So, what sort of history can you find within walking distance of your birthplace?



Rich said...

Doolittle's Raiders of WWII received much of their training at my hometown airport in Pendleton, OR, as it's runway was short enough to approximate taking off from an aircraft carrier.

Unfortunately, this piece of history was not something I learned about in school, even though the aiport was literally minutes from our classroom.

I think kids would appreciate history if we used every opportunity to "make it real" by using local connections and news.

We must have read about the Pilgrims a dozen times, but rarely 'had time' at the end of the year to focus on more recent history.

Edna said...

I love the stories about the civil war, I have gone to a lot of cementeries and have done out genelogy about out ansestors. Love it. Lost my great-grandfather in the civil war, last he was seen was in Charleston, SC and never heard of again.


Linda said...

I've read diff series on the Civil War, but never heard of Davis Guards. Sounds like an interesting bit of history.

desertrose5173 at gmail dot com

Becca Dowling said...

Goodness! What a great tale. I have to direct my hubby here: his name is Richard Dowling and his ancestors are from Ireland. He's also a Civil War buff. Thanks for sharing this story.

becca.dowling [at]

Debbie Gail Smith said...

Thanks for posting this story, Kathleen. I love history, especially local history.

They used to have a reinactment of the battle at Sabine Pass. Hurricane Rita destroyed the park last year, so I'm not sure if and when they will do that again.

Vickie McDonough said...

That's a great story, Kathleen! I need to scrounge up some stories around here. The town I live in was part of Indian Territory just over a hundred years ago.

Leigh said...

What a great story! Just shows we never know what we might find once we start digging into history.

Living in GA, the obvious "big history" thing for us is the Civil War -- Sherman's troops marched right through my hometown, picking and choosing what to destroy and what to leave. Some of my ancestors stood on their front porch and watched the soldiers burn our church.

One of the worst train wrecks in GA took place just north of town in 1900. I grew up here but don't remember ever hearing the story until I saw something in the paper last summer. All the 'what if's' in my mind pushed me to try my hand at writing a historical!

Rhonda said...

Update to a previous post. The Sabine Pass Battleground Park is reopening soon. Also did you know that many of the soldiers stationed at Sabine Pass were stationed at a place just over the border in Louisiana on the Sabine River. The place is called Niblets Bluff. There was a fort there at one time and it is now a park area. The only thing that remains is an old cemetery.